Newsroom Midwest Region

Love birds and want to help them thrive? Becoming a citizen scientist could help give birds a future to count on

April 22, 2019

Four employees look for birds through binoculars.
Mitch Bergeson, Luke Worsham, Sarah Warner and Kelly VanBeek participate in the Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Andrew Cruz/USFWS.

Are you a big fan of birds? Ever wonder how you can help scientists have a better understanding of birds? If you answered yes to either of these questions, we at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommend that you consider becoming a citizen scientist and participating in a local bird count. You don’t have to be an expert birder to participate in these exciting and rewarding events, as event sponsors often make an effort to place experienced birders with less experienced ones who come out to enjoy the day and get a tally of birds.

Citizen scientist Judy Olson from Wisconsin took part in the most recent Christmas bird count, combing an assigned 6.5 square miles of land with a team of others. Upon completion, tallies of birds seen and heard are reported to scientists with Audubon who sponsor the Christmas Bird survey.

“I’ve been a bird count participant for about 12 years now. After learning about the opportunity to join in on the counts, I contacted our local Audubon staff about their Madison area count,” Olson said. “When I first started they assigned me an area that wasn’t being monitored in suburban Fitchburg, Wisconsin, a rapidly developing community. Today, along with others who have joined the count, I am still assigned to the same area. It was mostly farms when I started, but today, the area contains a lot of new housing and commercial development.”

Olson noted that she’s been a bird watcher for a long time, with 20-plus years under her belt of watching and learning about birds. “Over time, by participating in annual counts you continue learning and gaining skills. In addition, I also came to understand the importance and need to survey all types of landscapes, including suburban areas, as they change over time,” she said.

“With limited resources, citizen scientists often fill the void in collecting valuable information on bird distribution and abundance which can be used to target conservation,” said Midwest Region Migratory Birds Program Chief Tom Cooper. “Their help is enormous by simply participating in bird counts like the Christmas bird count, or using online platforms like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website to document observations. Judy Olson and other citizen scientists are very important to the work we do as well as that of partners such as Audubon and other national, state and local bird conservation organizations.”

Of the various bird counts across America, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is the longest running, with this past year’s count, which occurred from December 14 to January 5 being the 119th. The survey is conducted over several weeks, during which specific local counts, or count circles, are conducted by volunteer participants in one day. The Madison area has several Service employees from multiple programs assist with the count, but the vast majority of participants are community members. Observers tally any birds they see or hear in their assigned area throughout the day.

Service Migratory Bird Biologist Kelly VanBeek noted, “Data collected from the many great citizen scientists who love birds and participate in the Christmas Bird count, and a variety of other counts throughout the year, give us a broad picture of species populations and distributions during breeding and non-breeding seasons. Biologists can then use this data to note trends in populations and determine if those trends require changes in management practices to better conserve species. Participation in bird counts, also including the Great Backyard Bird Count, Neighborhood NestWatch, or reporting sightings in a variety of online venues is tremendously helpful. There’s no way we could survey all these areas with the number of biologists we have, citizen scientists help fill that information gap for us.”

There are many other ways that you, as a citizen scientist, can help birds, including through the purchase of Federal Duck Stamps and participating in other citizen science opportunities. If you’re interested in joining next year’s Christmas Bird count and other similar events, contact your local Audubon office or look for them on the web. Likewise, you can learn more about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s ebird initiative and interactive app on their website.

Two people look for birds through binoculars.
Biologist Katie Koch mentoring then young birder and citizen scientist Alec Olivier during a breeding bird survey. Alec has since accepted his first field job for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, before entering his freshman year at Ferris State University in Michigan. Photo by USFWS.